The Mysterious Affair at Styles
Introduction by John Curran
HarperCollins 2013 (1920)
“It is always wise to suspect everybody until you can prove logically, and to your own satisfaction, that they are innocent.” — Hercule Poirot, Chapter 8
Styles Court, Essex, July 1917. Captain Hastings, invalided from the front, is given a month’s sick leave from his convalescent home. He is invited by an old friend John Cavendish to stay at a country house a few miles from the sea, not guessing that it will be more eventful than he anticipated: in less than a fortnight after Hastings’ arrival at Styles Court Cavendish’s mother is fatally poisoned by strychnine.
Thus begins Christie’s first published novel, introducing retired Belgian detective Hercule Poirot to the world and initiating what would be known as the ‘cosy’ mystery. As Dr John Curran explains in his introduction here is the stereotypical mystery, set in a country mansion or village and involving a cast of extended family members, friends and acquaintances, often ending with a gathering in a drawing room for the revelation of ‘who done it’.
As the brusque Evelyn Howard puts it at the very beginning, “Like a good story myself. Lots of nonsense written, though. Criminal discovered in the last chapter. Everyone dumbfounded. Real crime–you’d know it at once!” As an arch metafictional device this is as good as it gets.
Motivation — opportunity — means. Though Christie doesn’t spell it out these key issues are what this novel (first published in the US in 1920) lays out. Hastings, who narrates the story, plays Dr Watson to Poirot’s Holmes, leaping to erroneous conclusions while missing out on clues but also fulfilling a crucial role in the final denouement.
Emily Cavendish, the second wife of the recently deceased owner of Styles, has recently remarried, to the chagrin of her stepson John, who trained as a barrister, his wife Mary, and Lawrence, a qualified doctor. Also in the household is Emily’s protégée Cynthia Murdoch, who dispenses medicines at a nearby hospital, and Evelyn Howard, described as a general factotum. Dr Bauerstein, an international expert on toxicology, wanders into the picture occasionally; but the real fly in the ointment is the rather strange figure of Alfred Inglethorp, regarded as a golddigger for having tied the knot with widow Emily.
And then Emily dies in dreadful paroxyms in front of the family, relatives who though shocked don’t seem that upset. Here’s where Poirot is invited in to investigate by Hastings. Who would want the new Mrs Inglethorp out of the way, and exactly how could they accomplish it? As with other examples of this genre there are red herrings in shoals, along with plot twists and late evidence.
Though this was the author’s first ever publication she’d written other unpublished pieces before, and with a sister and mother both writing as well it’s clear that writing was in her blood. While the ups and downs do strain credulity at times — a contemporary review in the Times Literary Supplement called it “almost too ingenious” it’s a great intellectual puzzle, compounded by her professional familiarity with medicines and poisons and her acquaintance with Belgian emigrés.
This edition includes, as an appendix, the original unpublished version of the chapter in which Poirot reveals who perpetrated the murder; she was persuaded to shift the resolution from a courtroom to a London drawing room — to the betterment of the novel.